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Buddhist Study

Expressing Gratitude

Photo by Jonathan Wilson.

Gratitude is a positive emotion that has long been seen by religious leaders, philosophers and many others as an important virtue. A quick glance at the world today, however, may give us a sense that it is in short supply.

At the same time, science has begun to acknowledge the tangible benefits of gratitude. Studies show that noting what we are grateful for can improve our quality of life, bringing heightened levels of happiness, energy, health, motivation and more.[1]

One study suggests that while gratitude is often associated with indebtedness, they are not the same. Feeling that we owe someone something can stifle our natural sense of appreciation. And when we give expecting repayment, that can dampen the gratitude of the recipient.[2]

The Buddhist View of Gratitude

Nichiren Daishonin throughout his writings emphasizes the importance of gratitude. His work “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude” opens with these lines:

The old fox never forgets the hillock where he was born; the white turtle repaid the kindness he had received from Mao Pao.[3] If even lowly creatures know enough to do this, then how much more should human beings! … What can we say, then, of persons who are devoting themselves to Buddhism? Surely they should not forget the debts of gratitude they owe to their parents, their teachers, and their country.

But if one intends to repay these great debts of gratitude, one can hope to do so only if one learns and masters Buddhism, becoming a person of wisdom. (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 690)

“Repaying debts of gratitude” here is a translates of the Japanese word ho’on. Here, ho means “to reward or return,” while on indicates “a benevolent favor” or “act of kindness.” This phrase is thought to derive from the Sanskrit word krita-jna, which means “acknowledging (jna) what has been done on one’s behalf (krita).”

In addition, the Chinese character for on (in ho’on) is formed with two components, one meaning “cause” and the other, “mind” or “heart.” We might say that what makes us truly human is knowing the “cause”—of who made it possible for us to be who we are now— and feeling in our “heart” the desire to respond with gratitude to that kindness.

Nichiren speaks of having gratitude for our parents, who gave us birth, raised and supported us; for our teachers, who help us develop our character and intellect; and for our country or society, which provides the basis for our livelihood. Buddhism also speaks of appreciating “all living beings,” or all people. Without our connection to all life, we could not exist; and without working to save people from suffering, we could not benefit from Buddhist practice and attain enlightenment.

The Benefits of Living With Gratitude

In The New Human Revolution, Ikeda Sensei offers the following words from Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic, from their exchanges together:

The spirit of gratitude imparts immeasurable joy and vitality to our hearts, and as long as we have a keen sense of it, it serves as a wellspring that enables us to overcome every form of adversity and welcome true happiness into our lives. Gratitude enriches our lives to an incomparable degree. (vol. 22, pp. 79–80)

Sensei further shares some of Mr. Matsushita’s observations on gratitude:

Of course, appreciation and efforts to repay one’s gratitude must never be demanded of people or forced on them, he added. Rather, Mr. Matsushita suggested, it is better to try to encourage people to understand the importance of gratitude and strive to make this value permeate society while still allowing people complete freedom of choice. (NHR-22, 80).

Genuine leaders never demand loyalty or insist anyone owes them. They instead set an example of living based on appreciation.

Nichiren spoke repeatedly of repaying his gratitude to the Buddha, to his teacher, his parents and the people. And he endlessly thanked and praised every person who supported him.

Sensei has lived the same way, constantly speaking of his gratitude to his mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, of the benefit of repaying that gratitude, and thanking and encouraging the members and everyone around him.

How do we go about repaying our gratitude?

The greatest wish of a Buddha is the happiness of all people. To share this wish and pray and take action for our own and others’ happiness is the best way to express our gratitude. In the SGI, gratitude is something we pay forward, and the joy and benefit from doing so is immense.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department


  1. Emmons, Robert A. and McCullough, Michael E., “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89. ↩︎
  2. Watkins, Philip; Scheer, Jason; Ovnicek, Melinda; and Kolts, Russel, “The debt of gratitude: Dissociating gratitude and indebtedness,” Cognition and Emotion, 2006, vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 217–41. ↩︎
  3. [Mao Pao was a Chinese warrior who, according to legend, once saved the life of a turtle. When Mao Pao was driven in battle to the banks of the Yangtze River, the same turtle appeared and carried him to safety. ↩︎

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